Russian politician and activist Alexey Navalny made headlines around the globe upon his return to Russia, and subsequent detention. In a statement released on February 24, 2021 the organization dropped the designation after determining some of his past comments to “reach the threshold of the advocacy of hatred.”
Originally, Amnesty International designated Navalny as a ‘prisoner of consciousness’ with Amnesty International Moscow Office Director Natalia Zviagina saying, Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels.”
The Kremlin denies allegations of using state agents to poison Navalny.
Amnesty International claims to still support Navalny’s freedom but cannot support his designation as ‘prisoner of consciousness’ as certain past comments violate the organization’s standards for the designation. ‘Prisoners of conscience’ are defined by Amnesty International as “someone who has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are.” Navalny has previously made comments concerning ethnic minorities in Russia that the organization finds sufficient to disqualify him.
Critics of the change point to the use of these comments by anti-Navalny activists in order to discredit the larger democratic movement in Russia. Reuters reports that Alexander Golovach renounced his own designation as ‘prisoner of conscience’ in order to protest the change. Golovach serves as a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (фбк).
Navalny’s appeal to his two and a half year sentence recently failed and is reported by Reuters to have been moved on February 25, 2021 to a prison south of Moscow.
Amnesty released a lengthy statement on Thursday clarifying its decision.
The rights group wrote: “Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience (POC) as a person who has been deprived of their liberty solely because of their conscientiously held beliefs, or for discriminatory reasons relating to their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or other identity, who has not used violence or advocated violence or hatred.
“Claims that Amnesty’s decision on Aleksei Navalny was a response to external pressure are untrue and ignore our longstanding and detailed internal policy.
“Amnesty International opposed Aleksei Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment in Moscow in January 2021, which took place in the context of a widespread and brutal crackdown on peaceful activists and government opposition by the Russian authorities. Tens of thousands were arrested in protests against the government of President Vladimir Putin, and we issued repeated calls for protesters’ rights to be respected, as well as for an independent investigation into the alleged poisoning of Aleksei Navalny.
“Amnesty used the term POC following Navalny’s arrest to emphasize the unjust nature of his detention and our opposition to his unfounded prosecution. Our position on these reprehensible actions by the Russian authorities has not changed.
“Concerns were subsequently raised within the Amnesty movement over the reference to Navalny as a POC given that Navalny had, in the past, made comments which may have amounted to advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility.
“Amnesty decided to re-examine the case and conducted a thorough review of the evidence base. After painstaking consideration, we concluded that we had made a mistake in our initial determination. In making that determination, we had focused solely on the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s unjust arrest and detention, and given insufficient weight to some of his previous comments which, as far as Amnesty is aware, have not been publicly renounced. We concluded that some of these reached the threshold of advocacy of hatred, at odds with our definition of a POC, and took an internal decision to refrain from using the term in future.
“Reports that Amnesty’s decision was influenced by the Russian state’s smear campaign against Navalny are untrue. At no point were statements falsely attributed to Navalny, or information solely intended to discredit him, taken into consideration. Propaganda by the Russian authorities is recognizable as such.
“Amnesty International has itself been the target of misinformation campaigns by the Russian authorities and state-run media. Our ongoing activism, campaigning and research critical of the Russian government shows clearly that pandering to the Kremlin is not a part of our agenda.
“It is true that some of the old comments made by Navalny became more prominent after his latest arrest, in the context of a deliberate campaign by President Putin and his supporters to discredit Navalny. This does not change the fact that when Amnesty examined some of those statements, we found some of them to be at odds with our policies. As a matter of principle, we cannot ignore the evidence before us.
“Amnesty International does not base its decisions on POC status on Twitter threads, or on lobbying by journalists or government supporters. Rather, these decisions are made on the basis of evidence and a thorough review by law and policy advisors and regional research experts.
“The fact that Amnesty International decided not to refer to Aleksei Navalny as a POC has no bearing on our insistence that Navalny has been unlawfully detained, and subjected to state-sponsored harassment and prosecution for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
“Our ongoing assessment of past comments made by Navalny is unrelated to our position on the Russian authorities’ intensifying and brutal crackdown on human rights – including the arbitrary detention of Navalny – which we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
“However, we recognize that the poor timing of this internal decision has unintentionally distracted from the campaign for Navalny’s immediate release. We deeply regret any damage this may have caused to the campaign to free Navalny, as well as the distress caused to Navalny’s and his many friends and supporters.
“Speculation around our internal decision has detracted attention from the mounting human rights violations being committed by the Russian authorities, and from our core demand that Navalny be released. The controversy around Amnesty’s use of the term POC has been weaponized by the Kremlin, against us and against those who are expressing critical views against the Russian government.
“There should be no confusion: nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention, which is purely politically motivated. Navalny has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression, and for this reason we continue to campaign for his immediate release.”